28 Jun 2010

A star is born...

So, let's see... I write for a Spanish magazine and the other day I sent an article (the fist of many, I hope) for an upcoming Czech beer magazine. I've been interviewed for an article in a Norwegian magazine, for the new edition of Lonely Planet - Prague guidebook, and also for the Spanish service of Czech Radio. What am I missing? Oh yeah, TV!

Clase Turista is a travel show on an Argentine TV channel. It's got a nice twist, instead of sending a camera and a celebrity to show not much more than the postcards of a given city, they contact Argentines that live there and tour it with them, seeing it through their eyes while talking about their lives.

One of the hosts for the Prague episode was me, and here you have it (in Spanish, sorry).

Of course, not everything was about beer. We shot the whole day and the experience was for me very interesting and a lot of fun. The most impressive thing, however, was the response from people. The show aired last Wednesday, late in the evening in Argentina, and when I turned the PC at 6:30AM on Thursday the Spanish version of the blog had received over 2700 hits, and would get another 1000 or so during the rest of the day. I also received dozens of e-mails, comments and messages, which are still coming (and I'm slowly answering). Each and everyone of them was great, full of compliments, positive energy. I was left overwhelmed and very happy. It was just an amazing experience, very hard to describe.

But I haven't had enough. Tomorrow I'm off to Humpolec with a team of an upcoming TV Show for a Czech channel. We will shoot at Pivovar Bernard and I will be the "guest expert". Yeah, you've read well, me as guest expert on a Czech TV show about beer. Incredible, and I'm so looking forward to it.

Na Zdraví!

24 Jun 2010

In Praise of Simplicity

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I like strong, complex, weird, extra hoppy, extreme beers as much as the next power BeerRater. My favourite, however, are the simple ones, those with ABV's from from low to average. The kind of beer I drink every day, that waits for me in the fridge, that is great company while watching the World Cup, that is a lubricant of those meetings with friends or that simply quenches my thirst after working on the garden.

There are some people who will tell you that saying that a beer is "simple" is to put it down. That's not true, "simple" doesn't mean "boring", it just means the opposite to "complex". To me, there are few things more satisfactory than a "simple and tasty" pint. Unfortunately, there are many out there who believe that if a beer isn't "complex, intense or challenging" it's almost not worth the bother, and that is why extreme, etc. beers receive such a disproportionate attention.

A couple of weeks ago, a fellow Spanish beer blogger commented that a new Imperial Stout from a local micro was a "risky bet" by its brewer. No way! Actually, for an already well reputed micro brewery an Imperial Stout is a very safe bet:

  • It's strong and for many people the quality of a beer is proportional to its ABV %. This also can help to "justify" a relatively high price.
  • It's not something for the masses. If I'm not wrong, only a couple of hl were brewed. It targets a niche where most people are already familiar with the Imperial Stout style and will sure want to taste a locally brewed version.
  • If it doesn't sell quickly it's not such a big deal, under the right conditions, a beer of this kind can be kept for a relatively long time without compromising its quality, and it could even improve with age!
  • And last, but not least. It might seem a paradox to some of you, but this kind of beers are actually easier to brew. Their complexity and intensity of flavours will help mask, or even integrate, defects that would ruin others.

In other words, a truly risky bet would be to brew a výčepní, a mild or any other classic style of rather low alcohol, brewed with just one or two kinds of malt and little known out of their countries of origin. As I said the other day these beers are not easy to brew and deserve more praise and recognition than they actually get.

Na Zdraví!

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21 Jun 2010

God Save the (Real) Ale II

Mi friend John, from England, was back in Prague for a short holiday a couple of months ago. Just like last time, we met for lunch, in this opportunity joined by his two friends, themselves beer enthusiasts. We had some good fun, talked at length, had several beers (the IPA from I don't remember whether Koucour or Matuška made a pretty good impression among these experienced Ale, etc. drinkers). Just like last time, I received some samples of RAIB's (Real Ales in Bottle), all in beautiful bottles and all, with the exception of Fuller's 1845, very sessionable, with an ABV below 5%. (BTW, I was really glad to receive another bottle of 1845, I loved it last year).
To start, I opened Barnstormer, a Dark Bitter brewed by Bath Ales. I would love to tell you more about its bouquet. At first, I thought it was the beer that didn't have much to offer, but after going through these and other Ales. etc. I came to the conclusion that the nonic glass, though pretty nice and comfortable for drinking, is crap for evaluating aromas. Back to the beer. It's got a pretty unctuous mouth feel, with nice notes of caramel and black sugar along with a subtle mix of flowers and tropical fruit to give it balance. I loved it. In a way, it reminded me to Bakalář Polotmavé Výčepní. As that one, Barnstormer is a fantastic ale to drink (several of) while enjoying a barbecue with friends.

The only gripe I have about it comes from the label, where it's described as "complex". Mine might not be the sharpest of palates, but complex is one thing this beer isn't. It simple, tasty and very satisfying, and that's the beauty in it. Anyone can make a complex beer, but brewing something like Barnstormer isn't so easy and deserves more praise.
Batemans XXXB (what a fugly website) was the second in line. If any of you are wondering what that XXXB means, look for it in Ron Pattison's blog, he'll be able to confuse you a lot better than me. And that's pretty much it. There's not much else I can tell you about this Pale Ale, other than it's boring, monotonous and forgettable. Perhaps all those X's made me expect something bolder, either way, it was disappointing.
To finish the session I opened the Stout from Titanic Brewery (who have a really nice webpage). I really, really liked this beer. I'm a style anarchist, but experience has helped me know pretty much what to expect from each style and sometimes, it's nice to get just that. Roasted coffee, brown sugar, some raisins and a finish with a now more intense coffee. Another beautiful beer without pretensions, great to have a couple in the afternoon.

Thanks John and his two friends (sorry lads, I can't remember your names) for these three samples of classic English brews.

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18 Jun 2010

It hurts!

Beer consumption in the Czech Republic has declined, last year by 5%. Of course, this doesn't amuse the macros very much, but I reckon the must have assumed that this is something out of their control; after all, there is a crisis to which we should add demographic and lifestyle changes of consumers.

What it must really hurt them a lot is that while their production volumes have dropped, those of several regional breweries have enjoyed considerable growth, as I pointed out some months ago. In other words, not only people are drinking less, but there is a growing number among them that are buying alternative brands. And that is something the suits that run these companies can't accept. How can you explain otherwise, that all of a sudden, and almost simultaneously, all of the three multinational groups that operate in the Czech Rep. have decided to launch new products, which, curiously, aren't direct competitors, but seem to complement each other.

We have that Heineken has presented Krušovice 10°, a světlý výčepní brewed, according to them, based on the original recipe, and Krušovice Malváz, a polotmavé speciál that I haven't seen anywhere yet. While StrarBev, the new owners of Staropramen, have presented a 11º, with emphasis put on the caramel malts they use, which also shows their wish to repeat the success of Gambrinus with Excellent. And Plzeňský Prazdroj, property of SAB-Miller, who have presented Master Zlatý a 15º Balling světlý speciál, which expands the Master brand, finally available in bottles.

What's interesting about this is that, unlike what's happened in other countries, none of this are gimmicky beers. Meaning thatIt  they aren't fake versions of popular foreign styles like Super Bock or Quilmes Stout; nor are they flavoured with extracts (which, to be fair, seems to be the prerogative of a couple of regionals and a few micros here). They don't pretend to be innovative or revolutionary, either. They just fit very well in what is considered here as "traditional". This, if you want, could be also seen as marketing bollocks, but the important thing here is that their discourse speaks about the drink, or at least, about some of its specific characteristics, instead of showing it only as a complement for football, tits or having fun with mates. If we consider how well tuned is the marketing machinery of this companies, then we could deduct that there is a change in consumer behaviour, there is more and more people who are paying attention to what they have in the glass and not just to the brands.

But enough with this nonsense. What about the beers? Well, since I didn't believe any of these companies would send me samples, I had no other choice but to go buy them with my own money. The horror!

I started with Krušovice 10º. I hope you'll forgive the lack of a picture here, but my camera ran out of battery at the worst possible time, so you'll have to believe me when I tell you that this is a pretty good looking beer. Unfortunately, that is the best it's got to offer. It's not that it's bad, it's just tasteless and lacking any character whatsoever. It's as if someone not only had overcooked a good piece of meat, but didn't bother much with the seasoning, either. If I was thirsty and someone offered it to me, I'd drink it, but just one.
It might come as a surprise, but Staropramen's jedenáctká was the one I was most curious about. It's the first new product under the new management, and I had some hopes that the new owners wouldn't be as obtuse as the previous ones. Why did I bother. Staropramen 11º is awful, horrible, enthusiastically nasty. It tastes like something brewed for Lidl or Penny Market. How frustrating! I swear I wanted this beer to be at least decent.
I had to wait for Prazdroj to at least leave a slightly better impression. Master Zlatý could be better (in fact, there are couple of beers in the same category that I would gladly drink before this one), but at least it has flavour and character. There is an interesting contrast between aroma and taste. The former, fruit and honey with a herbal background, while the latter is the opposite, a lot of dried herbs with some grass, with a fruit and honey background. At times, it looses some of its balance and it becomes a bit rough, perhaps it needs some more lagering, but it still has a fair drinkability. All the Master line is available only in 0.33l bottles and, unfortunately, they are all pasteurised; which is understandable, you can't expect a giant like Prazdroj to adapt some of its technologies for such a marginal product in their portfolio. And by the way, I see good export potential in them.

Personal tastes aside, I don't think any of these products can be a "threat" to the regionals. Those of us who are committed consumers of these beers won't be easily attracted by whatever is offered by those very same brands we have pretty much left behind. I see this as an attempt of the macros to somehow put a stop to the loss of consumers. Anyway, I still welcome them, specially Master, because they bring a little more variety to the market.

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15 Jun 2010

More pork

Carrying on with my series of my recipes that aim to clog the arteries of my readers (and also, because everyone seems to be watching the World Cup) I wanted to share something I came up with that was inspired by a great looking recipe published by Logia Cervecera the other day (in SP).

Vepřový Bok na Nakouřenem Pivu (Side of pork in Smoked Beer)

750g side of pork (you know, the cut that after curing and smoking becomes bacon)
500ml smoked beer
2-3 garlic cloves
Plenty of  fresh thyme, rosemary, sage and a couple of bay leafs
1 tbsp. cumin
1 tbsp. paprika powder
A few beans of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper

With a very sharp knife cut a few incisions on top part of the meat (the thick, fatty one) and salt it. In a bowl add the spices, herbs and garlic cloves cut in half or crushed by hand. Add then half of the beer and mix. Put the meat into the mix, cover and take it to the fridge to marinade for several hours or overnight. Pour the rest of the beer in a glass and sip it while watching the telly or listening to music.
Put the meat in a baking tray together with the garlic, herbs and part of the marinade. Add a bit of water and put it to roast for at least one hour in an oven preheated to 180ºC. Every now and again, "paint" the thing with the rest of the marinade. Ten or so minutes before it's ready, add the rest of the marinade and raise the heat to 220-230ºC.
To serve, cut in rather thin slices. It can be served with almost anything. I garnished it with onion stir fried in duck lard until golden, to which I added the juice left in the tray and finished it off with a bit of butter. It was great. As a side, we eat a simple salad of lettuce, spring onion and herbs, all from our garden.
Pairings: I drank a Polotmavý Speciál, but I guess a Vienna Lager, a Dunkles, maybe even a Bock or a Mild or a not too hoppy Ale would do the job just fine. Besides, of course, a good Rauch or any other smoked beer you may happen to have.

But wait, that's not it! If there is something left, you can eat it the morning after. Cut some even thinner slices and roast them slowly in a pan, letting the fat melt, and then fry an egg and maybe a tomato in it. With some rye bread and a nice Stout or Porter this is a breakfast that offer all the nutrients any decent person needs for the day.

And while I was writing the above I realised how good this food is for these World Cup days. You don't need much time to prepare it, you can have it ready to roast since the morning or the day before. When the preliminary bollocks, mandatory before every game start, you can put it in the oven and it won't need much attention, other than going a couple of times to baste it, and it will be ready on the plates by the time the second half starts.

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10 Jun 2010

Who let the dog in?

Besides the interesting growth and success of some of the regional brewers and the boom of the micro breweries, all while beer consumption in the Czech Republic has declined, another segment that has seen an increase in sales are the imported beers. And I mean quality beers, most of them brewed by micro, regional or independent breweries, and not aberrations like Corona, Desperados and Foster's. Their market share and sales volume might still be rather insignificant, but there are more and more people interested in new and different stuff and they seem to be willing to pay a relatively high price for it.

For already a few years the company ACSAY has been working quite well with a solid portfolio of Belgian brews, that seem to find a new outlet every day. The success of Zlý Časy with their, mostly, American specialties has been remarkable, they pretty much sold out in a couple of months, without prices being much of a factor.

And now, with the addition of Odd Dog things are getting really interesting. This small company was set up by an Englishman and his Czech wife, and have big ambitions. They are already exclusive distributors of none other than Brew Dog and they are also in quite advanced negotiations with other renown and celebrated micros like Nøgne-Ø y Mikkeller.

A few days ago I met Mike, the owner of Odd Dog, for lunch and asked him what made him decide to start this business. He said it was because he wanted to bring in more diversity to the Czech market, that he felt there was a lack of quality imported beers. He also told me that things are going relatively well. At the moment, most of their sales are through their e-shop, but the goal is to start working with pubs, restaurants and specialised shops.

After the talk (during which I lobbied for Haandbryggeriet to be also imported) I was left with a very good impression of Mike. He's a really nice bloke, passionate and open to suggestions and ideas who also happens to now his beer. It was really interesting to be able to exchange opinions with him and know a bit more about his plans. I was also glad to know that he has started working closely with Hanz, the owner of Zlý Časy (another top bloke), who will soon open a beer shop that promises to be the best in Prague, by far.

Mike also was kind to bring me a couple of samples from BrewDog, which he chose carefully after reading this blog and figuring out what I like.
The first one I tasted was HardCore IPA in its new recipe. I had drunk the original version back at that Christmas festival and then at home and I loved it. The new recipe is "-er" for pretty much everything. According to the webpage, its IBU is 150, plus 9.2%ABV. The beer with the highest IBU I remember drinking before was Ruination IPA at a tasting at Evan's place with Velký Al and Rob. Just to prove that the IBU figure all by itself doesn't mean much, I found HardCore less bitter than Ruination, partly thanks to its more beefed up malts and its surprisingly short finish. I loved it! It was strong, balanced, intense, complex enough and at the same time very easy to drink. Fantastic to sip together with a cheese platter in a warm evening while the sun goes down. Perhaps my favourite beer from this Scottish brewer.
The other sample was Paradox Isle of Arran. Mike brought it with the promise that I would like it better than Paradox Smokehead, a grand beer that I wish I could drink again some day. This version of Paradox is very different to Smokehead. The whisky has a stronger grip on the whole thing, balanced by chocolate and wood in the taste, and chocolate, soy sauce, vanilla and fruit in the bouquet. I liked it, I liked it plenty. Very nice as a night cap. But, if I had to choose I would stay with Smokehead. Now, if Mike feels like putting both beers side by side, perhaps in a blind tasting I would not mind comparing them again.

Mike also reminded me that James Watts, the Canine in Chief, is coming down to Prague to sniff some butts and mark territory (and I hope this will stay as a silly pun and not become inspiration for anyone). He'll be giving a presentation next Thursday, 24 June, from 6PM at Pivovarský Klub. If there are any tickets still available, reserve them now. Otherwise, you might still come across the dogs at one of the several hospody they'll be visiting.

Anyway, I just want to wish Odd Dog nothing but success. I really hope their plans and ambitions come to fruition. We can never have enough variety.

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7 Jun 2010

Is the crisis a blessing for the regionals?

One of the questions I asked Max Munson, owner of Jáma during an interview I had with him a couple of months ago was why he had decided to change the beer supplier after a decade long relationship with Plzeňský Prazdroj.

After making clear that the people from Pilsen had always been very good business partners, and that the decision had been by no means influenced by anything they did wrong , he told me that the main factor for the change had been the crisis.

As many other restaurant owners, Max was doing the impossible to keep his head above water, which means cutting down costs. One day he was visited by a representative of K Brewery Group. Max didn't feel like talking to him/her at first, but then he remembered the first edition of the Czech Beer Festival, where he was part of the organisation. He saw first hand the huge success the regional breweries had, to the point that some of them had to be moved to the tents of the macros so they wouldn't be so empty.

To make it short, the talk with this rep was very fruitful. KBG not only offered a much wider range of products, but they also agreed to put the taps, bring glasses and promotional material to decorate the restaurant and, if all that wasn't enough, most of those beers were considerably cheaper than the equivalent from Prazdroj.

During the interview Max told me that the change had been very well accepted by the customers and that beer sales were up. But what has happened since then, once the novelty is over?

A couple of weeks ago I ran into Max and we had a short chat while he sorted out some problem at the new Jáma (nice place, by the way). I asked him how things were and was quite surprised by the answer. The change in supplier and adoption of the rotating beer model have helped his business in a way he could have never predicted. For example, he told me how some people that before only went for lunch, now come back after work to have a couple of those new beers, and how some of them already have their fans. He added that the original Jáma has stopped loosing money (they are breaking even now) and, according to him, that is thanks to the beers.

I know of several other examples like this. Last year the people of Celeste had already told me how well they were doing with Kout. This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, most of the products of regional breweries are cheaper than those of the big brands. Comparing prices at a wholesaler in Prague we find that a 50l keg of Gambrinus 11º costs 1470CZK, while the price for a same sized keg of Rohozec 11º is just 1080CZK; or that a 30l keg of Stella Artois or Heineken will set you back 1297CZK and 1472CZK respectively, while you'll be asked to pay 858CZK for the same volume of Svijany 12º. To this, I should also note that these regional beers can be sold at same price as the others. You don't need to be a financial guru to see the benefits.

I understand Gambrinus and Pilsner Urquell, they are still popular brands, but how can it be that there are still people who offer pseudo imported beers at their restaurants, etc. when not only they are expensive, but they are not likely to attract any new clients?

But when you see the enlightened minds behind the Prague Food Festival making such a fuss about Braník in Fancy Dress*, without any food writer, in English or Czech, having to say anything about it, what can you expect from the owner of a pizzeria in Prague 9?

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(*) I have strong suspicions that Braník, Staropramen and Stella Artois are the same beer with different labels, even though the first is a lot cheaper than the third.

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4 Jun 2010

Sporting Wood

What nasty weather we've been having the last few weeks! It almost looks like Autumn. The worst day of the lot was last Wednesday, when it rained pretty much the whole day. When I left early in the morning I didn't think of taking a raincoat, let alone an umbrella, and all I had on me was a t-shirt and a sweater (besides jeans and shoes, your pervs!).

The walk between the bus stop and my house was miserable. After having managed to dry a bit during the trip, I got soaked to the bones again. But still, I was in a rather good mood, I'd had a good day at work and fancied drinking a special beer. The weather called for something strong, rich and very dark. Fortunately, I had several barrel and wooden aged dark beers in my cellar.

By the time I got home I had already made up my mind: Espresso Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide Brewing Co.. With that name and a respectable 9.5%ABV, I know I couldn't go wrong.

It had reached me, together with two more samples of new American Beers, thanks to Todd, a fellow beer enthusiast that had come for a visit from the other side of the pond. We spent a great day together. We visited two brewpubs and a hospoda and had a couple (too many) beers, all while discussing what's happening in the American and Czech beer scenes. Curiously, that day was also chilly and rainy, and we decided to cap our session sharing a bottle of Kopi Loewak from De Mollen, another coffee flavoured Imperial Stout (and what a beer that was!).

But back to the Yeti. After having changed from my wet clothes and drinking the strong tea my lovely wife had prepared me, I picked the bottle I had left chilling in the fridge when I arrived.
Espresso Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout pours as black as the future, topped by a darker shade of cappuccino coloured head. There's a lot for the nose to work on, some booze that it's kept in line by a strong dose of freshly ground coffee that almost peripherally is joined by flowers and dried fruit, a very interesting mix. The taste is even more complex: strong coffee, brown sugar, wood, raisins and prunes, bitter chocolate, everything coming at you pretty much at the same time and rolling around over a pretty unctuous body. There is some booze here, too. It tickles the tip of the tongue and reminded me a bit of Fernet. The finish is very, very long and if any of you has ever had a very strong Italian ristretto without sugar, you'll know what I'm talking about.

This is a strong Yeti. The 0.65l bottle is ideal for a beer like this because it is a brew you'll want to share. I drank it in three steps (always letting my better half have a few sips) and enjoyed each of them. I won't go as far as to say it blew my mind, but it was exactly what I wanted and expected from it, no more, no less, and that it's no small thing.

Thanks Todd for this friendly monster. The other two bottles, Boulevard Smokestack Series Collaboration No. 1 and Russian River Supplication are in the cellar, waiting for their respective right times.

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